More Than Words: The Language Keeping Us Back

Life Coach & Breast Cancer Survivor Niamh Gaffney wrote the following inspiring piece for Issue 2 of Happy Magazine on the importance of healthy language in our lives.

Language is fundamental to how we see our lives. Let me show you what I mean. Read this poem and notice what you feel when you have read it. Chances are you’ll be feeling pretty rotten. It’s a sad poem.

Today was the absolute worst day ever

And don’t try to convince me that

There’s something good in every day

Because when you take a closer look

This world is a pretty evil place

Even if

Some goodness does shine through once in a while

Satisfaction and happiness don’t last

And it’s not true that

It’s all in the mind and heart


True happiness can be attained

Only if one’s surroundings are good

It’s not true that good exists

I’m sure you can agree that

My reality


My attitude

It’s all beyond my control

And you’ll never in a million years hear me say

Today was a very good day

Now, starting with the last line of the poem, read upwards, one line at a time.

Now, how do you feel? You might notice feeling uplifted, you might find yourself nodding a bit. This, using the same words, is a happy poem.

Do you notice now the power language has on you?

Language has such power over everything we experience. It creates our experience of the world. And if we want to change how we experience the world, we have to work on the language that we use.

And given that we think in language, our thoughts are words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. We shout at ourselves, we whisper, we moan, we whinge, we bully, we encourage, we rant, we support, we guide… we exist in our minds through language. So if we are going to create a change in the lives we live, we also have to tackle the words we use, to others AND to ourselves.

One of the incredible things about being human is our ability to think about what we think about. And this is a skill that when we use carefully, can help us develop real power over the life we live. It can help us create the life we want to live. And it can help us create that new normal after cancer comes to visit our lives.

Stick with me. We have to go back to school for a bit for this, but it’ll be worth it, promise.

The Theory

Firstly, we all come equipped with a Negative Bias; quite simply we are programmed with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. This kept us safe in the caveman days – we didn’t hang around if someone came shouting that there was a tiger coming. Our brains pick up and remember and heighten bad news. There are also cognitive biases (mental shortcuts) that lead us to use language absolutes such as Always/Never. This means we notice the negative stuff more, we pay it more attention, and we remember it more. We talk about it more. We dramatise it more. We think about it more. We are naturally inclined to ruminate on it. Negative language is easy to use – we’ve practiced it so much, of course it’s easy. And then you know the way you buy a lovely new white coat and then you start to see white coats everywhere? The same thing happens with negativity. As we spend more time seeing more negativity, thinking about it, imagining it, talking about it, we notice more negative news, seemingly proving to ourselves that our worries are valid and true. And so it cycles on and on, changing our attitudes and ultimately having a serious impact on our mental and emotional fitness, and also on our physical health. All this means that we have to work extremely hard to counteract this negative spin on reality. We have to recognises the biases and look for evidence to the contrary. We have to catch ourselves using negative language simply out of habit. We have to show ourselves that “bad things always happen to me” is simply not a true sentence, and that “I’ll never be good at that” can’t possibly be true, because if we tried it and practiced it, chances are at some point that you will. Simply opening your mind to the possibility of positive news, looking for it, talking about it, thinking about it is a great way to challenge those automatic negative thoughts.

Secondly, our minds really struggle with negative commands. Trying to not think of something is a very difficult thing to do, because you have to think of it first in order to tell yourself not to think of it – if I asked you not to think about a white elephant, what’s the first thing you think about? We can tell ourselves to stop worrying for example, and the automatic thing that happens is that all your worries flood into your brain so that you can mentally ‘stop’ thinking about them all. It’s exhausting, so what happens usually is that you worry more AND you have an extra worry that you can’t even stop yourself from a simple thing like worrying. This causes anxiety, distress, inner conflict and gives you an excuse to bully yourself. And this too is a habit of language. We have to notice those negative commands and challenge ourselves to look at it differently. Instead of the command ‘stop worrying’ we could change it instead to ‘there’s a lot going on for me, what can I do to make things easier?’ which takes away the bullying cyclical element and focuses instead on a real lasting solution, one that reduces instead of increases anxiety.

Thirdly, words themselves are important. Language is important. It’s how we communicate, to each other and to ourselves. We are constantly communicating, even if we’re not fully aware of it. Whether we are conscious of it or not, all our thoughts are language. Our thoughts are shouts, whispers, whinges, moans, yells, scolds, orders, praises… they are words. And we hear and feel the impact of every single word. And so the words we use are important. Words have real power and they feed into how we experience the world. They can create our reality and can change our reality. And the amazing thing about words is that we have the free will to choose whatever word we want. Words like Should, Must, Just, But, Sorry impact how we see ourselves, how the world sees us, and have a direct impact on our expectations of ourselves. Do you apologise where an apology isn’t necessary? (e.g. “Sorry, could I just say something?” Vs “I’d like to say something, if I may?”) Do you minimise your existence using the words Just (e.g. I just wanted to see if you’d like to go for lunch vs Would you like to go for lunch? ) Do you find yourself doing something you don’t want to do because you think that you ‘should’ do it, or do you find excuses in your language “I’d love to do that but…”

The language we use is so powerful. See how you can take back some of that power, and choose the change you want to see!

The Hard Work

And as with all school, there’s also the homework! There’s no point just knowing this stuff, the only change happens when we actually do the hard work. And make no mistake, this stuff is simple. But it is not easy. And it takes a lot of practice. A LOT!

1) Notice

Spend some time simply noticing the language you use as you go about your day. Notice the words you use. Aim to record these as you notice them, so that you can take a sit back and really see for yourself the perspective and the reality you’re creating.

Do you notice yourself using absolutes? (“I’m always getting things wrong/bad things always happen to me/ you always freak out with new things/I never catch a lucky break/everyone has a great life except me.”) Notice the feelings that come up when you think and talk like that.

As you talk to others and to yourself do you find yourself talking in the negative? e.g. stop worrying/don’t think about recurrence/don’t be afraid/stop being a wimp. Again notice what happens, what feelings you have, what actions you take/don’t take, what follow on thoughts spring up as a result of this.

Notice the perspective you’re taking with your language – do you find yourself going to the worst possible case? Do you notice a lot of should’s or musts or have to’s? What But’s are you putting in your own way? Are you ‘Just’ keeping yourself small, or apologising for your existence? Notice how often you use these words in your day to day life. Notice how they keep you small, or put you under pressure, or cause you anxiety.

2) Challenge

Next step is to challenge each of these language habits. Review what you’ve written in step one. And see how you can change each of these as they come up.

You have the power to choose how to phrase everything you say and think.

Practice catching those phrases (whether thought or spoken) and re-phrasing them so that they work for you rather than against you. This is tough, it’ll feel weird. Of course it will. You’ve not done it before. Think about it like putting on a new pair of shoes; they’re never comfortable at first, but the more you wear them the more comfortable they are – the more you do this, the easier it’ll become.

And see what happens next. See the power you have over your own life simply by changing the words you use. e.g. “I would love to go iceskating but I’m no good at balancing” changes to  “I would love to go iceskating. Balancing can be difficult on the ice and I’m nervous about that. At the same time I’m a little excited to try something new.”

Chances are, with the changed focus on language you are more likely to follow it with real action! This is where the small stuff makes the biggest differences.

3) Be conscious of the impact of your words and thoughts

Remember when you were small and your mum shouted at you and your siblings and friends to quieten down because she couldn’t hear herself think? You probably ran off and continued the fun and games elsewhere and passed no remarks on your mum hearing her thoughts.

But we all do this. We constantly hear our thoughts, whether we’re aware of it or not. And this has a major impact on how we feel, and consequently what we do about it. Ask yourself honestly. Listen to what you say to yourself, and ask yourself honestly, would I say those things to my child? Would I say them to my best friend? Would I let someone say those to me? Of course you wouldn’t. Nobody would. And yet we let ourselves be bullied over and over almost unconsciously.

And, it’s not just the words themselves, but the tone of the words that are important. There is so much research to show the impact of hearing kind encouraging love-filled words vs hard, bullying, hate-filled words. Ikea ran a 30 day project with 2 of their plants and found that the plant to which the hate-filled bullying words were spoken started to die, while the love-filled plant thrived.

Quite bluntly, kind loving words and phrases and the energy that comes with those words and phrases helps things grow, it is a nurturing energy, it heals. Things thrive in that energy. Conversely, harsh, bullying negative words and phrases cause things to stagnate, shrivel and rot and die. Let me leave you with one thought on this – if this is what words do to plants, what do they do to me…?

So my challenge to you is this. Choose what you want from life. Choose to see the evidence for that rather than seeing the negative possibilities out of pure habit. Choose kind words and thoughts. Choose to challenge your ‘normal’ way of thinking. Choose your new normal, and go after it wholeheartedly. You won’t believe where it’ll bring you!

This feature on language appears in Issue 2 of Happy Magazine.

A big thank you to Niamh for supplying us this content.

Niamh Gaffney runs coaching consulting company Directionality. She was 35 and a new mum to a gorgeous 6-month old baby girl when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the year that followed, she dealt with surgery, fertility preservation treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then faced redundancy from her executive level role. The fall-out of that crazy whirlwind of a year was a shock; she seriously struggled with the aftermath, with trying to get back to normal until coaching helped her realise that there was no going back – she needed to find her New Normal. When the dust settled she understood how much coaching could help others in similar situations and so Directionality opened its doors in early 2016.

Niamh is a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and her coaching is strictly governed by them.

She is a graduate member of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) and was hugely honoured to be invited to present her thesis “The Extent to which Personal, Occupational and Biographical Factors predict Psychological Wellbeing in Irish Teachers” to the Annual PSI Conference in 2010.

She is fully insured to practice coaching at all levels. She holds an Accredited Diploma in Executive and Life Coaching from PSG, a QQI Certificate in Professional Coaching Practice and Ethics, a First Class BA in Psychology from Dublin Business School and is currently in her Advanced Medical Coaching internship with MCI.

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